On 18 October 2007 I attended a pulp and paper industry professional seminar hosted by two industry product manufacturers.
Participating in barcamps has resulted in my viewing typical industry professional seminars in a different light than I did previously. When sitting in the same seat for the entire day in a classroom-type row of tables with information being presented to the attendees by the manufacturers reps, the urge arises to get up and move to a different "session." Then I remember I'm not at a barcamp, and there are no sessions. I remember attendees are mainly at the event to hear what the manufacturers reps want to tell us.
The old-style seminar is less appealing to me than unconferences for several reasons. First, the agenda and format of the event convey the impression that the objectives of the seminar sponsor are the only reason for the attendees to be there. Because the sponsor is paying for the event, it makes perfect sense that they design the agenda and format to benefit them. What sponsors sometimes fail to understand, however, is that they'll more likely achieve their objectives when attendees also feel they'll gain significant value from time spent in the seminar.
Second, designing and delivering a seminar which is engaging and enjoyable for all those involved will create a conversation between the sponsor and the event attendee/participants. A primarily one-way presentation implies that people who come to the event are attendees. One-way presentations also says the presenters know all they need to know about opinions or issues of the attendees. Conversely, the two-way conversation recognizes people attending the seminar as participants. A two-way conversation is more likely to make participants willing to share information about their needs and concerns relative to the sponsor's products, services or other reasons for hosting the seminar. People who are participants are more likely to take an active interest in whatever the sponsor is 'selling'. The two-way conversation will allow participants to better understand the value of the sponsor's organization or products to them. The goal of the seminar is no longer to just give the sponsor an opportunity to present their message. The goal is now to allow a discussion about participants' needs and the ways in which the sponsor can best address those needs. If the sponsor determines they can't effectively address a participant's needs, an introduction can be made to other organizations with whom the sponsor collaborates (not competes) who can best solve the participant's problems. In those cases where the conversation shows a sponsor's competitors can better address the needs of seminar participants, the sponsor has learned about a market opportunity and can then decide if it's worthwhile to develop a competitive solution. It's better to have a potential future customer or referral who appreciates your honesty and assistance than a dissatisfied ex-customer who realized too late your products or services didn't effectively address their needs.
In today's world of ADD, short attention spans, downsized companies, overloaded and overscheduled American lifestyles and competitors willing to adapt to the global economy and new world of work, truly understanding your customers or target market is critical to both surviving and growing as an organization. When you were the only game in town, it was easy to prosper even if you didn't understand or cater to your customers. Customer loyalty, limited mobility, lack of Wal-mart mentality, a slower pace of change and the absence of an internet bringing world-wide information to customers' homes meant customers would often buy your products or services just because you existed. However, the world has changed. Having two-way conversations with customers is an essential way to understand your market and to remain a preferred supplier for your products or services.
The third reason to bring an 'unconference' approach to industry seminars is because of networking. Most information presented by an industry supplier can be gotten via the internet these days. A primary value of participating in industry seminars is the networking opportunities. When people at a seminar feel they are participants, they are more likely to speak up, to volunteer useful information relevant to the topic of the seminar. Voicing their concerns or talking about their work situation invites others to network with them about related issues. If the seminar is structured to encourage and facilitate networking, people are more likely to come to the event, they are more likely to benefit from attending, and they will view seminars sponsored by that organization as more valuable.
For these reasons and more, industry seminar sponsors would do well to read the 'unconference' entry in Wikipedia and consider how to incorporate appropriate aspects of unconferences in their seminar. They are guaranteed to have more worthwhile seminars...